What would gender-friendly actions for homeworkers look like in a post-COVID-19 world?
Annie Delaney, RMIT University
This article is part of our Invisible Workers blog series.
Homeworking has always been a feature of global garment and footwear production as suppliers seek ways to reduce costs and respond to the demands of brands. Informal workers such as homeworkers create value for brands but are denied the security of labour rights and social protection. Homeworkers are almost always women; they are amongst the most vulnerable and marginalised workers in the supply chain. Often referred to as an “invisible workforce”, few governments effectively regulate their work and many brands are reluctant to acknowledge their presence in the supply chain.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of women homeworkers, as brands have cancelled orders, and in some cases, refused to pay for those already completed. Leaving suppliers unable to pay workers, let alone subcontractors who typically employ homeworkers.
Along with many women, homeworkers shoulder the burden commonly referred to as social reproductive labour: taking primary responsibility for the care of children, family members and often, additional activities to support the wider community.
For many women, homeworking presents the opportunity to earn an income while also balancing unpaid care responsibilities, enabling them to juggle paid work with the numerous tasks these different roles require. Along with many women, homeworkers shoulder the burden commonly referred to as social reproductive labour: taking primary responsibility for the care of children, family members and often, additional activities to support the wider community. Although families, communities, societies and companies all benefit from this unpaid labour, women’s contribution is rarely recognised or rewarded.
The undervaluing of women's work is replicated in the supply chain as homeworkers are generally the lowest paid, thus amplifying gender inequalities prevalent in society. Their work is irregular and insecure, so when work is available, they tend to work very long hours.
In response to the pandemic, brands have cut orders, delayed payments and applied increased pressure on prices. These responses only encourage local firms to shift these costs on to the workers with the least power. For this reason, isolated and marginalised women homeworkers bear the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis.
Why homework benefits corporations
Local firms and global brands profit from the labour of women homeworkers. Companies tend not formally recognise their role as workers in the supply chain, and benefit from subcontractors paying meagre piece meal rates, with no job security. Combined, these enable many firms to profit from homeworkers’ poor working conditions.
Lack of collective representation and capacity to bargain via a union also limits homeworkers ability to gain a seat at the table and negotiate with local firms or global brands to improve their overall situation.
Homeworkers are often isolated in their homes and face many obstacles to collectivise with other workers and challenge these exploitative conditions. They rely upon (typically male) intermediaries who liaise with the factories, deliver their work and pay their wages. Lack of collective representation and capacity to bargain via a union also limits homeworkers ability to gain a seat at the table and negotiate with local firms or global brands to improve their overall situation. Although many homeworkers have lost their livelihoods because of brands cutting orders, there is no sign of brands taking action to alleviate their hardship.
Looking after your homeworkers is a gender initiative
Enabling caregivers to continue in paid employment, not only providing the vital income they need to support their families, but also enabling experienced women workers to remain within the workforce.
Brands frequently promote ‘gender empowerment’ projects that aim to develop the self-awareness or education of women workers, around topics such as health. Yet, without fair wages, job security and compensation for long hours, such initiatives offer very little to vulnerable and marginalised homeworkers. Yet, homework could be a core component of a gender-sensitive workforce. Enabling caregivers to continue in paid employment, not only providing the vital income they need to support their families, but also enabling experienced women workers to remain within the workforce. Consequently, improving suppliers and brand recognition of homeworkers contribution in the supply chain and profits of the industry as a whole.
Homeworkers demand action by brands
Isn't it time for informal and marginalised homeworkers to be treated fairly? If brands can ensure homeworkers receive a living wage and regular work, this would be life-changing for many women.
Homeworkers have identified demands that brands can implement in response to their plight during the pandemic, establish their recognition as workers and improve the conditions in which they work:
- Recognition as workers, and access to social protection and health care to protect them in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Funds to mitigate workers suffering over this shutdown period.
- Recognise their value in the supply chain, so homeworkers are more visible and able to organise collectively to improve their working conditions.
- Setting fair piece rates and using simple, transparent tools to record their work and wages, and provide access to a grievance.
- Equitable treatment with other workers and inclusion in laws to protect their rights
The principle of greater transparency across the supply chain is vital to ensure homework can be regulated and workers are safe to raise grievances. Brands can contribute to homeworkers’ social and economic empowerment by meeting these minimum conditions. Fair wages, recognition as workers, reasonable purchasing prices, greater transparency and respect for homeworker collective rights are the most gender-friendly actions brands could take in a post-COVID-19 world.